What if the 2020 NFL draft came before free agency opened? Imagine how different the landscape might be.
You might see more trades, more aggressive stabs to move up for premium players. And no position would be affected more than quarterback.
There was no better demonstration than in the lockout of 2011. With free agency shut down that year prior to the agreement of a new CBA, all we had was the draft. It led to four quarterbacks being drafted in the top 12 picks and six taken in the top 36 selections.
And even though some of the quarterbacks drafted that year proved to be successful in the NFL, it’s clear that some of the big reaches — Jake Locker and Christian Ponder among them — were because the Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings, respectively, knew they had to get a quarterback first through the draft, not knowing when a new CBA might come and the free-agency period would then open.
We haven’t had six quarterbacks go in the top 36 picks in the eight drafts since. Nor did we have six in the first 36 in the eight drafts prior to 2011. That year was an outlier despite a mixed bag of QB prospects.
If a team decides that it needs to get a quarterback, under the current system with free agency first and then the draft six weeks later, there is less urgency. This is especially true this offseason, where the veteran quarterback market presents endless possibilities.
So we freely admit that this list coming prior to the opening of free agency runs the risk of being outdated quickly. At the same time, there was enough reason to run with potential landing spots for the 2020 draft’s top QB prospects because teams can still double dip — grab a veteran as a bridge QB and draft his replacement thereafter.
Here’s a look at some of the QBs and the teams most likely to pursue them in April:
Joe Burrow, LSU
The most likely result is Burrow going to the Bengals, despite some possibly suggestive language from Burrow’s camp that maybe he’s not as geeked about that happening as some Bengals fans appear to be. For now, Cincinnati is in the driver’s seat, and everyone else is several car lengths behind.
The Dolphins are the one team that could offer a trade-pick bonanza that might interest the Bengals. It certainly would take a lot to move up from No. 5 overall in the draft order.
The Panthers outbid several teams for the services of LSU passing-game coordinator, Joe Brady, who helped Burrow transform this season, as its offensive coordinator. Yes, Brady should help coach other QBs be successful, but he has proven it with Burrow. Again, it would take a motherlode of picks, but perhaps Carolina is in full rebuild and would go all out to land Burrow.
Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
Los Angeles Chargers
The Dolphins are the obvious one. You’ve heard of “Tank for Tua,” right? Point blank: If they want him, he’s going to Miami. The Dolphins have more picks (and more high picks) than any other franchise the next two years.
The Chargers also make a boatload of sense. If they’re going to move on from Philip Rivers, they need a long-term starter. Tyrod Taylor would make a quality bridge and give them insurance if Tagovailoa has health issues.
The other big factor that can’t be dismissed: The Chargers need an identity.
They couldn’t fill up their jewel-box stadium that was less than half the capacity of their new home as co-tenants with the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium. Tua would (eventually) sell tickets.
Why not the Jags? If they had a new head coach, I might list them higher, as it’s unclear whether Gardner Minshew is the long-term starter. If they were in love with Tua, they have great ammo (three picks in the top 42 overall this year, including Nos. 9 and 20 in Round 1) to move up and get it done.
Justin Herbert, Oregon
The Chargers make sense for Herbert for some of the same reasons we just laid out for Tagovailoa, minus maybe the ticket part. Herbert won’t be a draw until he starts lighting up NFL defenses.
The Bengals didn’t get to see Burrow at the Senior Bowl, but they did work with Herbert that week, and their message about him was overwhelmingly positive. Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin has said the team is considering four players at No. 1: Burrow, Tagovailoa, Ohio State pass rusher Chase Young and Herbert. Burrow might be the overwhelming favorite, but they really like Herbert.
Why the Lions? Well, they’re one of those teams that is said around the draft sewing circle to like him a lot. Although they didn’t work with Herbert down at the Senior Bowl, they saw plenty of him down there. Matthew Stafford is under contract through 2023, although the Lions could move on from him after the 2020 season without a disastrous salary-cap hit.
It’s still a long shot to see Detroit be Herbert’s eventual destination, but if the Lions trade down from No. 3, who knows? Herbert might have mass appeal to a certain degree, but there might only be a handful of teams that fall for him.
Jordan Love, Utah State
New Orleans Saints
Three-way tie: Las Vegas Raiders, Green Bay Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Colts have been mentioned with Love perhaps more than any other team. General manager Chris Ballard traveled to see Love twice this season, and his postseason comments about Jacoby Brissett made it clear that Indy — with three picks in the top 44 — would love to upgrade at the position.
Sean Payton reportedly wanted Patrick Mahomes, who went one pick ahead of the Saints’ selection in 2017. Love is not Mahomes, but there’s some real overlap in their skills. With Drew Brees’ status very much up in the air, I could absolutely see Love being on Payton’s short list, whether or not Brees is back in 2020.
The Raiders need a QB and are said to have done ample work on Love. The Packers brought in Drew Lock for a late visit last year and were intrigued; Love has some similar traits. And the Bucs’ Bruce Arians can’t ignore a gunslinger, can he?
Love’s destination is perhaps the hardest to figure out. His landing spot is surely going to be very interesting.
Jacob Eason, Washington
Three-way tie: Saints, Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings
Eason dots some first-round mocks at this point. Don’t be surprised if that frequency increases during and after the NFL scouting combine, even though his range is tricky to pinpoint. The biggest reason for that: His grades, depending on which team you ask, are all over the map.
Like Love, Eason is a bit of a gunslinger, although he’s not a scrambler. Still, he could appeal to some of the same teams. We also threw in the Jags and Vikings for good measure.
Jake Fromm, Georgia
New England Patriots
The Falcons drafted Matt Ryan No. 3 overall in 2008 and have spent a mere one pick (2010 seventh-rounder Sean Renfree) on a quarterback since then. With the extra second-rounder they have from the Patriots, they’re in a prime spot to take someone such as Fromm. Ryan is turning 35 in May and remains an above-average QB, but the Falcons might want to protect against losing him a year after he took a league-high 48 sacks (and 96 in his past 33 games).
We don’t know the Patriots’ QB plans, obviously, but even if Tom Brady was back in the fold for 2020, Fromm — if he fell to the right range — could make for an excellent understudy to compete with 2019 fourth-rounder Jarrett Stidham. Fromm and Stidham faced each other three times, with Fromm’s Bulldogs winning two of those games.
And the Panthers make sense if new head coach wants his own hand-picked game manager, with Fromm fitting the mold of the smart, tough and cool customers he had at QB at Temple and Baylor.
Anthony Gordon, Washington State
Three-way tie: Jaguars, Packers and Tennessee Titans
The Lions’ staff coached Gordon at the Senior Bowl and had to be impressed with how he steadily improved throughout the week. He might never be the type of player who projects as a surefire franchise QB, but Gordon has enough intangibles to intrigue teams. The Lions’ backup situation behind Stafford needs improving.
The Bears might go the veteran route to upgrade over Mitchell Trubisky, and they don’t have a ton of picks prior to Round 5 to spend willy nilly. But I could see Gordon being appealing to the Bears if they want to add a third QB.
And hey, let’s get nuts … Minshew beat Gordon for the Washington State job in 2018, so let’s have them battle it out again!
Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma
Patriots, Eagles, Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers
Hurts is a tricky one to pinpoint. Some teams will view him as a developmental prospect, and others might see value in a Taysom Hill-type of role, at least in his first year or two in the NFL. And some teams just aren’t going to have a high grade on him at all, with Hurts not neatly fitting into many previously created boxes as a pure QB.
That’s why the first two teams make sense. The Bears might need to manufacture offense if they stick with Trubisky and could create a package of plays for Hurts. Likewise, Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone might be watching closely at what his old friend Payton has done with Hill and could bring that dimension to Jacksonville.
After that, it’s guesswork and dart throws. The Patriots, Eagles, Titans and Steelers all could highly value Hurts’ football character, athleticism and potential versatility. The only one of those teams that currently has a long-term franchise QB under contract is Philadelphia, with the caveat being that the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger might not play more than another year or two.
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